By Jeremy Los
“This issue has received band-aid approaches to fix it when it needs a tourniquet.” – La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid
“We look at them as a resource… they are the eyes and ears of the community… they certainly know when something is going on.” – El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis, on the homeless in his town
"I do not feel there needs to be a regional center for the homeless in East County." -- Lemon Grove Mayor Mary Sessom
"I am not in the homeless business." - Santee Mayor Randy Voepel
April 26, 2011 – Four East County mayors shared their reactions on a new study on the many homeless in our region. Their views differed dramatically on how to address the homeless problem. In addition, three of the four mayors questioned the study findings and voiced doubts on the numbers of homeless people listed in their cities.
According to the 2011 Point-In-Time Count by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, East County is now home to 8.9% of San Diego County’s homeless population, with El Cajon staking claim to the highest number of homeless people. However, the majority of El Cajon's homeless are in shelters--while in other East County communities, the homeless are living on the streets, in cars, or camped along riverbeds.
Countywide, the number of homeless grew 5.9%. In East County, expanding the number of locations counted and changes to methodology make comparisons more difficult. Spring Valley’s level actually dropped from 284 to 99, but that likely reflects a homeless sweep conducted by the Sheriff along the Sweetwater Riverbed. Other areas, such as La Mesa and Santee, saw large increases in homeless numbers. El Cajon has 342 homeless, the survey found.
According to the survey, one out of every 11 homeless people resides in the East County, roughly 802 people out of 9,020 countywide. Unincorporated areas, most of which are in East County - amounted for 285 unsheltered homeless. Spring Valley and Lakeside were counted having 99 and 98 unsheltered homeless respectively, while Alpine had 12 and Jamul 21. Ramona was counted having four homeless, but according to Litwak, that area only had three volunteers making it possible that not every homeless person was accounted for.
Other East County neighborhoods also saw high homeless numbers reported. Lemon Grove was reported having 94 unsheltered homeless, while La Mesa was counted having 55, all of which are unsheltered. Santee reportedly has 58. But three out of four mayors have raised questions about the findings of the count.
Below are details on the homeless levels in Santee, El Cajon and La Mesa, along with comments from each local mayor.
Santee, a city that has grown exponentially over the past decade, was reported having 58 unsheltered homeless in 2011, up from 15 in 2010, a number that Mayor Randy Voepel vehemently denies.
“We have never had more than 12-15 ever. The Sheriff’s Department monitors the homeless closely and currently put the number (Santee homeless) at 13, mostly in the river bottom” said Mayor Voepel in an email to ECM. “The Regional Task Force is either incompetent or liars, to inflate the Santee homeless count over 300%.”
Mayor Voepel has since repealed the claim that the Regional Task Force is inflating its numbers, but insists that the count is not entirely accurate.
“I am convinced that they are not ‘cheating’ but relying on volunteers for the counts, volunteers (especially activists) may not reflect the real count for many reasons that are aboveboard,” states Voepel.
The Santee City Council plan to discuss the findings at their next meeting scheduled to take place Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.
Executive Director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless for San Diego County Peter Callstrom stands by the results of the count, which tallies the homeless using three different categories: an individual, a vehicle or personal structure/tent.
“We revisited the count that was reported back to us by the volunteers,” said Callstrom. “We have reviewed all the data and we don’t find any error in the count.” He added that there would be no benefit to inflate the numbers, noting, “Housing and Urban Development does not allocate money to this region based on the count… there is zero financial incentive.”
Callstrom points out the Sheriff department’s lack of categorizing individuals living in vehicles as homeless could account for the considerable difference in counts. Volunteers in the study are trained to indentify homeless vehicles based on the amount of personal belongs in the vehicle as well as spotting someone asleep.
In Santee, volunteers were able to count 20 individuals plus 19 tent and vehicles. In order to estimate how many people were living in the tents and vehicles – since the count was done early in the morning (people sleeping in vehicles or tents might not be visual) - volunteers used a methodology that was adopted locally back in 2005 per Housing and Urban Development’s mandate. The methodology calls for volunteers to use a multiplier of two to estimate the amount of people living in tents and vehicles.
Callstrom admits that the methodology used only provides an estimation of how many homeless there are, but points out that in past studies the methodology has provided a pretty accurate assessment of homeless populations.
Callstrom states that the count raises a broader question, given past sweeps to clear out the homeless in East County, such as from Spring Valley’s Sweetwater Riverbed.
“What do we do now that we know people are in certain locations? Do we toss them out, or do we get them into housing and services?” he asked. “I’ve heard that Santee is the one city in the county that hasn’t signed onto PTECH, Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, through United Way.” (Editor’s note: This program is being rebranded as Home Again. “I was told that Santee was the only holdout because Mayor Voepel did not think there were homeless in Santee; hopefully we can bring him around.”
Santee does spend money on the homeless, though it is minimal according to Mayor Voepel, “The amount of spending Santee does on the homeless is very little because of the small amount (of homeless) the city has… the city does spend $5,000 for social services to fund the Crisis House.”
“I am not in the homeless business,” proclaims Mayor Voepel, who insists that homelessness is an issue for the County and the State to address.
About 342 homeless people take shelter in El Cajon, far more than any other East County neighborhood, with the majority, 226, being unsheltered and on the streets.
El Cajon has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in San Diego County. But the high rate of homelessness in El Cajon does not put a black eye on the city, according to Mayor Mark Lewis, wo finds a silver lining to the issue.
“We are not worried about the homeless,” said Mayor Lewis, when discussing the impact of the homeless on the city’s image. “We look at them as a resource… they are the eyes and ears of the community… they certainly know when something is going on.”
Mayor Lewis insists that a lot of El Cajon’s homeless are only temporary, and says that many are people who have hit a rough patch due to the economic downturn.
Numbers confirm Lewis’ point. The study indicated that unemployment was the main cause for homelessness throughout the county, cited by 37% of homeless people as the reason behind their current situation. Eviction/foreclosure was a distant second with 10%.
“There is a growing homeless problem,” says Sean Oliver, Director of the Development Department at the East County Transitional Living Center “and El Cajon is the beacon of homelessness in the East County.”
Of all the East County neighborhoods La Mesa had one of the fewest number of homeless residents, though according Litwak the 55 homeless counted doubled the 26 counted in 2010 with only 70% of the census tract being counted. A count that Mayor Madrid thinks might be a bit stretched if only 70% of the census tract was accounted for.
“I would like to know the methodology,” said Madrid, “how reliable is the figure? I would like to know what kept them from counting the other 30 percent; it becomes suspect that they only counted 70 percent. “
Nonetheless, Mayor Art Madrid views the homeless situation as a societal issue.
“The homeless issue in La Mesa is no different than the homeless issue throughout America,” said Madrid. “This issue has received Band-aid approaches to fix it when it needs a tourniquet.”
According to Madrid, the city is in talks with local church leaders about the societal issues facing La Mesa. “Churches try to do something for societal needs. Churches help anyone, it is not denomination oriented, it is about helping people of society.” says Madrid.
The amount of homeless veterans is an issue weighing heavily on the mayor. According to the Regional Task Force 17.86% of the county’s homeless are veterans.
“We should be embarrassed, as a society, by the number of homeless that are veterans,” said Madrid.
All of Lemon Grove’s 94 homeless individuals are unsheltered, according to the report.
Mayor Mary Sesson told East County Magazine that although her city does not count its homeless, “that number seems high just based on what I’ve observed and what I’ve heard reported by both our Sheriff’s deputies and our citizens.”
She said her city’s problems are unique. “As the smallest of the East County cities, we do not have any assistance programs. Some of our churches and social service agencies participate in various collaborative which provide a myriad of social services including assistance to the homeless.”
Those services do not provide shelter for homeless people, however.
No County or Community-run shelter in East County
Neither the County nor any City in East County operates a homeless shelter, leaving homeless people in East County who seek help with two options: traveling to downtown San Diego for services, or accepting assistance from church-run programs.
That’s fine with Mayor Sessom. “I do not feel there needs to be a regional center for the homeless in East County,” she stated. “While we may be in an era of shrinking budgets for both public and private institutions, there are services available suited to each city’s situation.”
Some homeless experts disagree.
“Personally, I think affordable housing is need in order to help our homeless neighbors regardless of where they are in the county,” said Jennifer Litwak, Manager of Projects and Development at the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
The homeless in El Cajon, according to Mayor Lewis, have many options available to them if they wish to seek out help. Lewis names Crisis House and the East County Transitional Living Center as valuable resources for the homeless community in El Cajon.
East County Transitional Living Center is a faith-based organization ran by CEO and Pastor Harold Brown. The ECTLC is a new incarnation of Set Free Ministries, which was founded by Phil Aguilar; according to CityBeat, Aguilar has been compared to cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones. Brown has said his organization’s affiliation with Set Free was a loose one; he realized it was time to make a split because Set Free’s religion-focused model narrowed the organization’s reach.
The East County Transitional Living Center receives some funding from the City of El Cajon for the non-secular aspects of its program, providing short-term shelter for people on the streets with its voucher program. The organization’s annual operating budget is $1.1 million, and it provides housing for 300 people.
In order to receive long-term assistance including job training, ho homeless individuals would have to enroll in a “Disciples” program that is faith-based and receives no government funding.
Lewis sees no problem with the city providing funding to a religious organization, pointing out that the organization understands that some people don’t want religion. That view is affirmed by Oliver.
“We definitely provide programs that are secular in nature, as well as our faith based programs,” said Oliver. “We are not going to turn anyone away seeking help.”
But some suggest that the County should take responsibility for the homeless in East County. Currently, homeless seeking County help must make their way to downtown San Diego—a long distance from places like Lakeside and Ramona, where public transportation is limited. A call to Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office was not returned by press deadline.
“I think a regional homeless center would be a step in the right direction,” said Litwak. “The interesting this is about East County is that it is geographically huge, so having one is going to be helpful but it won’t solve the homeless problem.”
The Regional Task Force on the Homeless and Executive Director Callstrom seek to solve or at least limit the growing homeless problem in East County and San Diego County.
“We all want to end this, but if there’s one thing I want to emphasize," said Callstrom, “Let’s talk about how we end this [homelessness] versus debating how this count has occurred.”